Rape and Domestic Violence: Gender-based violence remained a serious concern. In a study published in May, the Asia Foundation found that 59 percent of girls and women between 15 and 49 years old had experienced sexual or physical violence at the hands of an intimate partner and that 14 percent of girls and women had been raped by someone other than a partner. Although rape, including marital rape, is a crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison, failures to investigate or prosecute cases of alleged rape and sexual abuse were common. The formal justice system addressed an increasing number of reported domestic and sexual abuse cases, reflecting increased knowledge by community leaders and police officers that gender-based violence is a public crime that may not be dealt with through traditional justice mechanisms.
The Law Against Domestic Violence broadly covers all forms of domestic violence, including marital rape, and augments the Penal Code. While many cultural and institutional obstacles hinder implementation of the law, local NGOs viewed the law as having a positive effect by encouraging victims of domestic violence to report their cases to police. The secretary of state for the support and socioeconomic promotion of women has a gender focal point in each district, which helps direct victims to appropriate resources and supports capacity building and key actors in their areas.
According to the Office of the Prosecutor General, domestic violence offenses were the second-most commonly charged crimes in the criminal justice system, after simple assault. Several NGOs that monitored the courts’ treatment of such cases, and those providing services to victims in such cases, criticized the failure to issue protection orders and over-reliance on suspended sentences, even in cases involving significant bodily harm. Prosecutors routinely charged cases involving aggravated injury and use of deadly weapons as low-level simple assaults.
Police, prosecutors, and judges routinely ignored many parts of the law that protect victims. NGOs noted that fines were paid to the court and often came from shared family resources, further hurting the victim. Between January and August, however, judges sentenced defendants convicted of domestic violence offenses to incarceration in at least nine cases, a significant increase over the previous year.
The PNTL’s Vulnerable Persons Units (VPUs) generally handled cases of domestic violence and sexual crimes. The unit, however, does not have enough staff to provide a significant presence in all areas of the country, necessitating the involvement of other police units, especially community police, who are commonly present at the village level. Women’s organizations considered VPU performance as variable but improved.
The government and civil society actively promoted awareness campaigns and provided training to government responders to combat all forms of violence against women.
The Ministry of Social Solidarity is charged with providing assistance to victims of domestic violence. During the year ministry staff in each district included a gender-based violence focal point to coordinate a referral network, a coordinator for the Bolsa de Mae (Mother’s Purse) support fund, and two additional staff who focused on children’s issues. Due to staff shortages, the ministry had difficulty responding to all cases. To deal with this problem, the ministry worked closely with local NGOs and service providers to offer assistance to victims of violence, including shelters, a safe room at the national hospital, financial and food support, and escorts to judicial proceedings.
Sexual Harassment: The labor code prohibits sexual harassment in the work place, but such harassment reportedly was widespread. Relevant authorities processed no such cases during the year (see section 7.d.).
Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children; manage their reproductive health; and have access to the means to do so free from discrimination, coercion, and violence. Economic, cultural, and religious considerations and distance (in rural areas) sometimes limited women’s reproductive rights. Unmarried girls and women under age 20, for example, may be denied reproductive health services. Additionally, in many areas, service providers sometimes required a husband’s permission before providing reproductive health services. Healthcare was not readily available for complications associated with abortion due to overall lack of women’s healthcare and the criminalization of abortion.
According to estimates from the UN Population Division, 27.2 percent of women of reproductive age used a modern form of contraception. The Ministry of Health and NGOs promoted both natural and modern family planning methods, including the distribution of intrauterine devices, injectable contraceptives, and condoms, although government efforts heavily focused on natural methods. NGOs noted government clinics lacked the capacity and understanding to dispense some contraceptives properly and that clinics often lacked contraceptive stocks. Local service providers provided more than 50 percent of reproductive services.
According to 2015 World Health Organization estimates, the average maternal mortality rate in the country was 215 deaths per 100,000 live births. Access to maternal health services remained a challenge for persons in rural areas, although each district has at least one medical facility that provides maternal care. Sixty-one percent of mothers received antenatal care from a medical professional, and 32 percent of mothers received post-partum care. Recent efforts by the government and NGOs have expanded access to midwives and other skilled professionals, in addition to increasing access to information and use of breastfeeding.
Discrimination: The constitution states that “women and men shall have the same rights and duties in all areas of family life and political, economic, social, cultural life,” but it does not specifically address discrimination.
Some customary practices discriminate against women, including traditional inheritance systems that tend to exclude women from land ownership. There have been complaints that the company registering land claims used forms that do not protect women’s rights to property or follow best practice related to gender.
Other cultural practices, such as payment of a bride price as part of marriage agreements (barlake), also occurred in some areas and have been linked to domestic violence and to the inability to leave an abusive relationship. Additionally, in some communities a widow was forced to marry one of their husband’s family members or leave their husband’s home if they did not have children together.
Some women reported employment discrimination based on marital status (see section 7.d.).
The Secretary of State for the Support and Socio-Economic Promotion of Women is responsible for the promotion of gender equality. Several NGOs focused on women’s issues and collaborated in a powerful network.